Netanyahu: Likud voters caved in to PM’s ‘baits’

Benjamin Netanyahu, shaken by Ariel Sharon’s upset victory in a key Likud vote, said Tuesday that his defeat was due in part to Likud voters who had caved into pressure, „baits” and offers of patronage jobs from the prime minister’s camp. Sharon won Monday’s Likud Central Committee vote on whether to hold an early Likud Party primary by a slim 104-vote margin. The 1,433 to 1,329 victory over Netanyahu, who pushed for the proposal to hold the primary in 60 days, puts a freeze on the struggle within the Likud until April, when the primaries are scheduled under the party constitution. Turnout was high, as 91 percent, or 2,762 central committee members out of the listed 3,050 heeded Sharon’s call by coming to cast their ballot. Netanyahu Tuesday turned aside media characterizations of him as a loser, the „Simon Peres of the Likud.” „I have had many victories, and have also had defeats,” Netanyahu said, calling his showing in the vote „a very, very impressive result.” „If someone had said months ago that a serving prime minister, with all of the might of rule, would be fighting for a razor-thin margin in order to get past his own party – it’s as though George Bush had to get past the Republican [National Committee].” The vote did not ratify Sharon’s political views over his own, Netanyahu said. „There were, first of all, those who agreed with his path, but there were others who caved in to the pressures, the baits, the patronage jobs or other things.” Asked if he was saying that the prime minister’s victory was achieved dishonestly, Netanyahu did not answer directly. „First of alI, I am not demanding a re-vote. We lost by a few votes.” Netanyahu said the result was likely to be different in the Likud primaries, in which the party’s much larger rank-and-file membership is to vote. „Here, [offers of] jobs don’t work, and microphones don’t work,” a reference to a Sunday night incident in which Sharon’s microphone failed just as the prime minister began his address. The incident was seen as shifting sympathy to Sharon. Victory poses dilemma for Sharon The victory places Sharon in an even greater dilemma, according to some commentators, than if he had lost. In fact, Sharon is gaining time to decide on his political future, whether to compete in the Likud or to quit and set up a new political party to fight in the next elections. „The prime minister thanks you all,” MK Ruchama Avraham, a Sharon ally, told a cheering crowd after getting off the phone with the Israeli leader. „The fact is you told him by a majority vote: ‘We want you to remain as prime minister and head of the Likud’.” Sharon’s men said Monday that he would demand of Netanyahu, as the leader of the rebellion against him, to end the „uprising” and undertake to work as part of the coalition. Sharon confidants said he intends to bring the state budget for a first Knesset reading after the October recess. Therefore, he will issue an unequivocal demand „that Bibi and the bunch of mavericks he leads commit themselves to respect the results of tonight’s vote and support the coalition unconditionally,” they said. Likud fchair MK Gideon Sa’ar, who recently jointed Sharon’s opponents in demanding an early primary, will have to „shape up and enforce the party line,” Sharon’s aides said. They said however that „no heads will roll” and that Sharon would not take revenge on ministers who had turned against him. Sources close to the prime minister said he sees the vote results as a show of confidence in his way as he presented it, and that he intends to continue to implement the Middle East road map peace plan as he has promised. At the end of the evening, after a vain attempt to put a telephone call through from Sharon to his activists, MK Ruhama Avraham climbed on the stage at the Tel Aviv Fair Grounds and said in his name: „Apparently there has been another technical hitch. He wants to thank all of you. He loves you. Today, we all told him that we want him to remain our prime minister.” Minutes earlier, Netanyahu conceded defeat: „I respect the democratic decision of the Likud. The decision also requires a clear commitment on the part of everyone that they will contend in the primary. [Membership in] the Likud is not a conditional thing.” BPI-info